The Carolina Panthers have to consider their 2022 Draft a success after addressing the two positions that most needed attention.
They also happen to be the two positions that are toughest to fill outside of the draft, so using their top two choices on those areas was a near must.
The Panthers filled their glaring need at left tackle with NC State’s Ickey Ekwonu at the sixth overall pick. It’s the first time since 2008 that Carolina has used a first-rounder on an offensive tackle, and, not by coincidence, the Panthers have struggled at that spot nearly ever since.
The team also had a need at quarterback and traded up to take Ole Miss passer Matt Corral. While Carolina coach Matt Rhule said Corral wouldn’t push Sam Darnold to start this year, it still solidifies a spot that clearly needed help.
So, what’s next?
With teams turning back to the remaining free agents on the market to address needs, where do the Panthers still need to improve before the 2022 season starts? Here’s a look at the most crucial areas to upgrade.
Yes, we just said the Panthers addressed this position in the draft. But if the front office is to be trusted and Corral will devote most of his rookie year to developing for the future, then Carolina still needs someone who can take snaps and produce if Darnold isn’t the answer.
There are two quarterbacks who could become available as the offseason goes on. The Browns traded for Deshaun Watson, making former top pick Baker Mayfield available. The 49ers also may be ready to part ways with Jimmy Garoppolo.
The trade market for both quarterbacks appears to have dried up as most teams that needed quarterbacks have found them. If one or both is released, the Panthers could bring one in to push Darnold in training camp and be available if Darnold struggles or goes down to injury.
The Panthers have DJ Moore, who they signed to a long-term contract before the start of free agency, and Robby Anderson has also produced in his time with the team. But the Panthers need to add depth to a position that is very thin behind those two starters.
There are plenty of big names available on the secondary free agent market. The question is whether any of them have something left in the tank. The list includes longtime Panthers killer Julio Jones, as well as Jarvis Landry, Odell Beckham Jr. and, perhaps the best fit for the team, former Indianapolis Colt TY Hilton. He seems to be most in demand following the draft out of that group, however.
The Panthers lost Haason Reddick in free agency and need to find someone to replace him rushing the passer. Carolina used a late pick to take Amare Barno in the sixth round, but it may be asking a lot of the Virginia Tech rookie to replace Reddick.
There aren’t many impact veterans still available, especially if the Panthers — clearly still looking to develop for the future — want to add someone young. Jadeveon Clowney has been around the block but is still just 29 years old. Perhaps the best bet for the team is 26-year-old Takkarist McKinley.
The Panthers signed Ian Thomas to a long-term contract, which makes this less of a glaring need, but the team generally has used multiple tight ends in the past and may want to add a pass-catching tight end to help alleviate the need for receiver depth. In addition to improving protection, another way to improve quarterback play is to give him more targets, and tight end is a good safety valve. That’s especially for a quarterback like Darnold, who has made no secret of his happy feet in the pocket at times.
Among the tight ends still available are Jared Cook, Kyle Rudolph and former Tar Heel Eric Ebron.
The team doesn’t have a glaring need at any of the defensive back spots, but defensive coordinator Phil Snow indicated that he’d like to add to the team’s depth at safety when discussing the offseason last month.
Tyrann Mathieu was the top safety left on the market and clearly more than a mere depth pick. The Saints snapped him up shortly after the draft, however. The team might consider former 49ers safety Jaquiski Tartt, who is 30 but likely the top remaining option on the market.